Unwilling to abide Adolf Hitler's blatant military aggression throughout Europe, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in September of 1939. The system of alliances formed amid many European and Asian countries during the 1930s was therefore triggered, and much of the world was rapidly plunged into war. Circumstances would not allow the United States, in spite of its initial statement of neutrality, to sit out World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, and the United States officially entered the war on behalf of the Allied Nations.
By 1942, some 45,000 downed Allied airmen had been captured by the Germans. To relieve its overflowing prisoner-of-war camps and address the countless escape efforts, Germany opened a giant POW complex in April of 1942. The new Stalag Luft III was located at Sagan, Poland, roughly halfway between Berlin and Breslau. It would eventually house over 10,000 Allied air force officers.
Stalag Luft III represented the sum of everything the Germans had learned about guarding POWs and foiling their escape attempts. The camp was positioned deep in the woods, far removed in every direction from Allied-friendly territory. More importantly, Stalag Luft III was built on ground composed of sandy dirt. The soil's relatively loose composition added another uncooperative variable to the already difficult enterprise of tunneling (the most common method of escape).
The American, British, and Canadian prisoners of Stalag Luft III were confined in a 300-yard-square area known as the North Compound. The compound was surrounded by a double fence, generously strung with rusted barbed wire. The fences reached nine feet high and stood five feet apart. Sandwiched between the two fences was additional barbed wire, coiled so densely in some places it tested one's eyes to see through it. Also contained in the compound was an exercise area where the prisoners passed the time with their favorite recreationsbaseball for the Americans, soccer for the British, and hockey for the Canadians.
A warning wire, raised about 18 inches off the ground, ran the circumference of the compound ten yards inside the fence. Any prisoner who dared trespass the area between the wire and the fence could expect a spray of machine gun bullets from trigger-happy sentries in towers (called "goon-boxes" by the prisoners) located just outside the fence. The goon-boxes were placed about 150 yards apart with a clear view of the entire compound and an unrestricted field of fire. Electronic listening devices, connected to headphones continuously manned in the German administrative area, were buried along the camp perimeter to detect noise from tunnel digging.
Throughout the day, specially trained guards (otherwise known as "ferrets") strolled the compound proper, wandering in and out of barracks, keeping eyes wide open and ears keenly perked for an oversight, however slight, by any prisoner that might betray a tunnel under construction. At night, while powerful searchlights from the goon-boxes constantly swept the compound, additional guards, some towing vicious dogs trained to kill on command, weaved among the barracks and patrolled outside the fences.
Dense forestland completely encapsulated the camp. The timber had been cut back 30 yards beyond the fences so that any prisoner who managed to somehow cut through the sea of barbed wire fencing would then have to dash for cover over a sizable stretch of clear landan open target for the machine guns in the goon-boxes. Furthermore, the empty land meant that any tunnel, even from the barracks nearest the woods, would have to be at least 100 yards in length to reach the trees.
The German high command had placed Stalag Luft III under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe, commanded by Reich Marshal Herman Georing. Himself a pilot during World War I, Georing held a certain degree of respect, however limited, for Allied airmen. For this, the prisoners could be thankful. Had the camp been controlled by the SS, conditions would have been much more unbearable. Hence, it appears Georing's master scheme was to build an escape-proof fortress, while at the same time making it comfortable enough so its occupants would be content to wait out the war with minimal effort directed toward escaping.
Ironically, the camp would turn out to be the perfect environment for a thriving escape organization! In spite of the exhaustive escape precautions (and the relative level of comfort), it was from the North Compound of Stalag Luft III that the infamous Great Escape occurred in March of 1944. The massive exodus, intended to accommodate 200-plus POWs, was planned by an ingenious team comprised of over 600 men.
At the head of the organization was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (aka "Big X"), who administered every phase of the escape preparations. He held daily conferences with his chiefs, including his confidant, First Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, and Herbert Massey, the Senior British Officer. One by one, Bushell gathered his specialists and informed them of their critical responsibilities.
For more than a year, the prisoners sewed civilian clothing, forged passports and other important documents (complete with photographs and official government stamps), printed maps, manufactured compasses, obtained time-tables of the Sagan trains, and dug three tunnels, dubbed "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." Progress was understandably slowthe tunnels had to go 30 feet deep before actually heading outward from the compound so as to evade the underground microphones. Each tunnel was equipped with a railway system to remove dirt and transport men, a string of lights tapped off the camp's electrical system, and a fresh air mechanism with pipes fashioned from tin cans and a pump made of backpacks.
Perhaps the most challenging task of all was to conceal the extensive escape preparations from the ever-present ferrets roaming the compound. For this, Bushell appointed American Lieutenant Colonel A. P. "Junior" Clark (aka "Big S") as chief of security. Clark oversaw a team of 300 "stooges" who clandestinely watched the ferrets' every move, ready to signal the escape workers if danger approached.
Actual construction of the tunnels began in April of 1943. In spite of several mishaps (one of the tunnels was detected by the Germans), and the vexing problem of what to do with all of the displaced dirt (over 130 tons of soil was redistributed around the camp by a team of "penguins"), Harry had reached a length of nearly 350 feetenough, according to the surveyors, to reach the outlying treesby early 1944. March 24, a no-moon night, was designated as the date of escape.
The escape itself was plagued with numerous setbacks and delays from the very start, when the tunnel opening was discovered to be several feet shy of the tree line. Consequently, Bushell fell considerably short of his goal of evacuating 200 prisoners. Nonetheless, an unheard-of 76 meneach hoping he'd seen the last of Stalag Luft IIIhad passed to freedom through the tunnel that night, a remarkable number for a single escape effort.
The German high command issued a massive alert. Some five million German troops, policemen, and auxiliary personnel would eventually be diverted from their normal war assignments to search for the escaped airmen. For most of the prisoners, freedom was expectantly short-lived. Within a fortnight, almost all of the escapees had been apprehended.
When news of the escape reached Hitler, he was livid. The Fuerher immediately called for the execution of all recaptured prisoners. Georing, however, intervened and convinced Hitler otherwisenot in the name of humanity but because of practical politics. Such action, reasoned Georing, would not only make it blatantly obvious the men were murdered (in violation of the Geneva Convention), it might encourage Allied reprisals against German POWs. Apparently seeing the logic, Hitler informed Goering that "more than half of them are to be shot." The official text of Hitler's hideous plan, known as the Sagan Order, was issued to the appropriate Gestapo agents and Kriminalpolizei chiefs. The grisly task was completed over the next several days.
The slain POWs and their surviving comrades are immortalized in the 1963 movie The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges. Filmed in Bavaria, Germany, the film boasts an extensive and impressive cast (listed below). One of the leading actors, Donald Pleasence, was himself a Royal Air Force wireless operator during World War II, serving time in a German POW camp after being shot down.
Richard Attenborough ... Roger Bartlett ("Big X")
Charles Bronson ... Danny Velinski ("the Tunnel King")
James Coburn ... Louis Sedgwick ("the Manufacturer")
James Donald ... Rupert Ramsey ("the SBO")
James Garner ... Bob Hendley ("the Scrounger")
Robert Graf ... Werner ("the Ferret")
Gordon Jackson ... Andy MacDonald ("Intelligence")
Angus Lennie ... Archibald Ives ("the Mole")
John Leyton ... William Dickes ("the Tunneller")
David McCallum ... Eric Ashley-Pitt ("Dispersal")
Steve McQueen ... Virgil Hilts ("the Cooler King")
Hans Messemer ... Von Lugar (Stalag Luft III Commandant)
Donald Pleasence ... Colin Blythe ("the Forger")
Nigel Stock ... Dennis Cavendish ("the Surveyor")
The historical source for The Great Escape is Paul Brickhill's book of the same title, published shortly after the war. Brickhill, a British POW who served as one of the Stalag Luft III stooges, was supposed to have been among the escapees, but was disbarred at the last minute due to claustrophobia. Another Great Escape stooge, American George Hake, wrote the book's introduction. The maps and drawings are the work of Ley Kenyon, one of the escape organization's star counterfeiters.
Many details of the actual escape were meticulously re-created in the movie under the technical advise of Canadian Walt Floody (the real-life Tunnel King) and Englander Barry Mahon. Unfortunately, the movie is not entirely accurate. Although most of the trials and tribulations of the ingenious tunneling process are correctly detailed, the characters (all identified with fictitious names) are trumped-up composites of several real-life prisoners. Admittedly, such amalgamation is understandable for the necessary ease of story-telling. (The actions throughout the film of McQueen's character, for example, can be linked to at least seven of the actual POWs.) The participation by American POWs in the entire eventfrom preparation through the escape itselfis somewhat overstated.
The most predominant departure from the true events happens once the escape has occurred, and the action shifts from one escapee to the next and then the next showing their attempts to flee and subsequent arrest by German authoritiessome of the scenes are strictly Hollywood. Additionally, The Great Escape abbreviates the end for the unfortunate escapees who were shot, but the dramatic finale is poignant all the same. Even with its minor historical flaws, the movie faithfully displays the extreme courage, dogged perseverance, countless frustrations, ironic wit, and suspenseful tragedy of Brickhill's Stalag Luft III comrades.
The Great Escape is not rated, but by today's standards, even the most discriminating viewer would agree that the movie falls safely within the bounds of a PG designation. It runs nearly three hours. The Elmer Bernstein score is a good one.
Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing The Great Escape, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).